A Comparative Study of the Translation of Colloquialism in English Subtitles of the Iranian Film Persian translation jobs
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A Comparative Study of the Translation of Colloquialism in English Subtitles of the Iranian Film "The Wind Will Carry Us"

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This research provides an overview of the state of translating colloquialism in Iranian films with English subtitles. Based on Viney and Darbelnet's translation procedures, the researcher took an Iranian film "The Wind Will Carry Us" by 'Abbas Kiarostami', as the subject to see how the translator dealt with colloquial expressions in its source text with a comparison between the SL version and the TL version.

Taking faithfulness, naturalness, expected effects and fluency as judging criteria for comparing two versions, the researcher finds that the most frequently applied procedure is 'adaptation', changing for functional equivalence and even recreation in place of faithful translation. Such rewriting approaches are used to avoid causing confusion due to the target audience's lack of background knowledge.

Adaptation and localization of the film subtitles make the colloquial expressions in the film different and sometimes they lose the original color. In order to evoke the intended effect on the target language audience with the subtitles and let them recover the scenes, a translator must provide the more local information in preference to the more global. Indeed the more local the information is, the more likely the information is to be realized in the subtitles.


A colloquialism is an expression not used in formal speech, writing or paralinguism. Colloquialisms can include words (such as "y'all", "gonna" or "grouty"), phrases (such as "ain't nothin'", "dressed for bear" and "dead as a doornail"), or sometimes even an entire aphorism ("There's more than one way to skin a cat"). Colloquialisms are often used primarily within a limited geographical area.

Words that have a formal meaning may also have a colloquial meaning that, while technically incorrect, is recognizable due to common usage. For example, biweekly is truly defined as "every other week", however, many dictionaries list both "twice a week" and "every other week".

Auxiliary languages are sometimes assumed to be lacking in colloquialisms, but this varies from one language to another. In Interlingua, the same standards of eligibility apply to colloquialisms as to other terms. Thus, any widely international colloquialism may be used in Interlingua. Expressions such as 'in the hands of...', 'What's going on?', and  'What the devil?' 'What the hell?' are common.


Extremely frequent information exchange and human interactions around the world in modern society have pushed translation and interpretation activity to a high peak and one of the most practiced translation activities is audiovisual translation. Audiovisual works, such as TV programs and movies, are broadcasted in two versions: subtitled version and dubbed version. Subtitling translation and dubbing translation, the most frequently applied two audiovisual translation (AVT) methods, are dynamic translation activities.

We can find cultures manifest themselves in languages and all kinds of human creative works based upon languages, including audiovisual works. Those special parts of cultures not only prove this world full of varieties, but also create obstacles for translators in the area of untranslatable parts in creative works. It is inevitable to find some untranslatable parts when we try to translate the languages in foreign audiovisual works into target languages. The researcher believes that the most difficult part in subtitling translation is overcoming those untranslatable parts in which colloquialism has an important part, in order to allow viewers to fully enjoy the audiovisual works. The translator of a film has to decide on the importance given to certain cultural aspects. They might be hidden in colloquial expressions, and he/she is going to figure out to what extent it is necessary or desirable to translate them into the TL. The aims of the SL will also have implications for translation as well as the intended readership for both ST and the TT.


Subtitles as a means of facilitating the understanding of foreign films long preceded the birth of the localization industry. Although regarded as a branch of translation, subtitling differs greatly in some respects from translation of written texts. Translating for subtitles involves taking spoken dialogue as input and producing written text as output. The discrepancy between the speed of actors' speech and the audience's ability to read written words, plus the restriction on the available space on the screen, all impose a severe limitation on the amount of text allowed for subtitles. This can be likened to the word limitation sometimes imposed on the localizer due to pre-defined string lengths when localizing software. However, while a localizer can, if necessary, make adjustments to multimedia objects, the subtitler is unable to modify the images or audio of a film. The subtitles must be meaningful to the target language audience in relation to the particular scene being shown. All these constraints and requirements make subtitling a specialized task that demands creative linguistic solutions.

A Methodology for Translation

Translators can choose from two methods of translating, namely direct, or literal translation and oblique translation. In some translation tasks it may be possible to transpose the source language message element by element into the target language, because it is based on either (i) parallel categories, in which case we can speak of structural parallelism, or (ii) on parallel concepts, which are the result of metalinguistic parallelisms. But translators may also notice gaps, or "lacunae", in the target language (TL) which must be filled by corresponding elements, so that the overall impression is the same for the two messages.

It may, however, also happen that, because of structural or metalinguistic differences, certain stylistic effects cannot be transposed into the TL without upsetting the syntactic order, or even the lexis. In this case it is understood that more complex methods have to be used which at first may look unusual but which nevertheless can permit translators a strict control over the reliability of their work: these procedures are called oblique translation methods. In the listing which follows, the first three procedures are direct and the others are oblique.

In this research, the film of "The Wind Will Carry Us" by Kiarostami will be the case study. Different general procedures of treating colloquial implications for translation are going to be examined. In each procedure, some examples (colloquial expressions) are extracted from the film and the corresponding translations are presented along with them.

Procedure 1: Borrowing

To overcome lacuna, usually a metalinguistic one (e.g. a new technical process, an unknown concept), borrowing is the simplest of all translation methods. Translators need to use it in order to create a stylistic effect. For instance, in order to introduce the flavor of the source language (SL) culture into a translation, foreign terms may be used.

Some well-established, mainly older borrowings are so widely used that they are no longer considered as such and have become a part of the respective TL lexicon and they are no longer considered to be borrowings. Translators are particularly interested in the newer borrowings, even personal ones. It must be remembered that many borrowings enter a language through translation, just like semantic borrowings or faux amis, whose pitfalls translators must carefully avoid.

The decision to borrow a SL word or expression for introducing an element of local color is a matter of style and consequently of the message.


به دریا هم بزنیم خشک می شه!

Even at the sea, there's no water for me!

مش هاجر

Mash Hajar

Procedure 2: Calque

A calque is a special kind of borrowing whereby a language borrows an expression form of another, but then translates literally each of its elements . The result is either

I. a lexical calque, as in the examples below, i.e. a calque which respects the syntactic structure of the TL, whilst introducing a new mode of expression;

سردار بی سپاه

General without army

تک درخت

Single tree


II. a structural calque, as in the following examples below, which introduces a new construction into the language, e.g.:

پای تپه

Foot of the hill

ملک/زینب خانم

Miss Malek/Zeinab

کوچه باغ

Wooded lane

As with borrowings, there are many fixed calques which, after a period of time, become an integral part of the language. These too, like borrowings, may have undergone a semantic change, turning them into faux amis. Translators are more interested in new calques which can serve to fill a lacuna, without having to use an actual borrowing. In such cases it may be preferable to create a new lexical form, this would avoid awkward calques.

Procedure 3: Literal translation

Literal, or word for word, translation is the direct transfer or a SL text into a grammatically and idiomatically appropriate TL text in which the translators' task is limited to observing the adherence to the linguistic servitudes of the TL.

In principle, a literal translation is a unique solution which is reversible and complete in itself. It is most common when translating between two languages of the same family (e.g. between French and Italian), and even more so when they also share the same culture. If literal translations arise between two languages, it is because common metalinguistic concepts also reveal physical coexistence, i.e. periods of bilingualism, with the conscious or unconscious imitation which attaches to a certain intellectual or political prestige, and such like. They can also be justified by a certain convergence of thought and sometimes of structure, which are certainly present among the European languages, and which have motivated interesting research in General Semantics.


با ناخن توی صورت خودش می کشید.

She scratched her face.

یه خورده یواش کن.

Slow down a bit.

واقعا یک معجزه است که زنده مونده.

It's a miracle he survived.

In the preceding methods, translation does not involve any special stylistic procedures. If this were always the case then the present study would lack justification and translation would lack and intellectual challenge since it would be reduced to an unambiguous transfer from SL to TL. The exploration of the possibility of translating scientific texts by machine, as proposed by the many research groups in universities and industry in all major countries, is largely based on the existence of parallel passages in SL and TL texts, corresponding to parallel thought processes which, as would be expected, are particularly frequent in the documentation required in science and technology. The suitability of such texts for automatic translation was recognized as early as 1955 by Locke and Booth.

If, after trying the first three procedures, translators regard a literal translation unacceptable, they must turn to the methods of oblique translation. By unacceptable we mean that the message, when translated literally

I. gives another meaning, or

II. has no meaning, or

III. is structurally impossible, or

IV. does not have a corresponding expression within the metalinguistic experience of the TL, or

V. has a corresponding expression, but not within the same register.

 Equivalence of messages ultimately relies upon an identity of situations, and it is this alone that allows us to state that the TL may retain certain characteristics of reality that are unknown to the SL.

If there were conceptual dictionaries with bilingual signifiers, translators would only need to look up the appropriate translation under the entry corresponding to the situation identified by the SL message. But such dictionaries do not exist and therefore translators start off with words or units of translation, to which they apply particular procedures with the intention of conveying the desired message. Since the positioning of a word within an utterance has an effect on its meaning, it may well arise that the solution results in a grouping of words that is so far from the original starting point that no dictionary could give it. Given the infinite number of combinations of signifiers alone, it is understandable that dictionaries cannot provide translators with ready-made solutions to all their problems. Only translators can be aware of the totality of the message, which determine their decisions. In the final analysis, it s the message alone, a reflection of the situation, that allows us to judge whether two texts are adequate alternatives.

Procedure 4: Transposition

The method called transposition involves replacing one word class with another without changing the meaning of the message. Beside being a special translation procedure, transposition can also be applied within a language. We have a base expression and the transposed expression. In translation there are two distinct types of transposition: (i) obligatory transposition, and (ii) optional transposition.

From a stylistic point of view, the base and the transposed expression do not necessarily have the same value. Translators must, therefore, choose to carry out a transposition if the translation thus obtained fits better into the utterance, or allows a particular nuance of style to be retained. Indeed, the transposed form is generally more literary in character.

A special and frequently used case of transposition is that of interchange.


امکان نداره.

It's impossible.

کارِت دارن.

You're wanted.

یادآوری آن دردناک است.

When I remember it, it's painful.

همشهری منه.

He's a local.

Procedure 5: Modulation

Modulation is a variation of the form of the message, obtained by a change in the point of view. This change can be justified when, although a literal, or even transposed, translation results in a grammatically correct utterance, it is considered unsuitable, unidiomatic or awkward in the TL.

As with transposition, we distinguish between free or optional modulations and those that are fixed or obligatory. The type of modulation which turns a negative SL expression into a positive TL expression is more often than not optional, even though this is closely linked with the structure of each language.

The difference between fixed and free modulation is one of degree. In the case of fixed modulation, translators with a good knowledge of both languages freely use this method, as they will be aware of the frequently of use, the overall acceptance, and the confirmation provided by a dictionary or grammar of the preferred expression.

Cases of free modulation are single instances not yet fixed and sanctioned by usage, so that the procedure must be carried out anew each time. This, however, is not what qualifies it as optional; when carried out as it should be, the resulting translation should correspond perfectly to the situation indicated by the SL. To illustrate this point, it can be said that the result of a free modulation what you would say". Free modulation thus tends towards a unique solution, a solution which rests upon an habitual train of thought and which is necessary rather than optional. It is therefore evident that between fixed modulation and free modulation there is but a difference of degree, and that as soon as a free modulation is used often enough, or is felt to offer the only solution (this usually results from the study of bilingual texts, from discussions at a bilingual conference, or from a famous translation which claims recognition due to its literary merit), it may become fixed. However, a free modulation does not actually become fixed until it is referred to in dictionaries and grammars and is regularly taught. A passage not using such a modulation would then be considered inaccurate and rejected.


الان اصلاً جای این بحث هاست؟

This is the wrong time.

باز گفت کی.

You still ask who?

خیالتون راحت باشه.

Don't worry.


I'm listening.

قطع شد. (تلفن)

We were cut off.

سلامت باشید، همین کارو انجام بده.

If you're in good health, carry on.

صدای به این قشنگی...

You sing so well.

امکان نداره.

It's impossible.

Procedure 6: Equivalence

One and the same situation can be rendered by two texts using completely different stylistic and structural methods. In such cases we are dealing with the method which produces equivalent texts. The classical example of equivalence is given by the reaction of an amateur who accidentally hits his finger with a hammer: if he were French his cry of pain would be transcribed as "Aie!", but if he were English this would be interpreted as "Ouch!". Another striking case of equivalences are the many onomatopoeia of animal sounds.

Here we have a particular feature of equivalences: more often than not they are of a syntagmatic nature, and affect the whole of the message. As a result, most equivalences are fixed, and belong to a phraseological repertoire of idioms, clichés, proverbs, nominal or adjectival phrases, etc. In general; proverbs are perfect examples of equivalences.

The method of creating equivalences is also frequently applied to idioms. For example, "to talk through one's hat" and "as like as two peas" cannot be translated by means of a calque. Yet this is exactly what happens amongst members of so-called bilingual populations, who have permanent contact with two languages but never become fully acquainted with either. It happens, nevertheless, that some of these calques actually become accepted by the other language, especially if they relate to a new field which is likely to become established in the country of the TL.

The responsibility of introducing such calques into a perfectly organized language should not fall upon the shoulders of translators: only writers can take such liberties, and they alone should take credit or blame for success or failure. In translation it is advisable to use traditional forms of expression, because the accusation of using Gallicisms, Anglicisms, Germanisms, Hispanisms, etc. will always be present when a translator attempts to introduce a new calque.


همه دور و برشن.

She has company.

اهل این طرفها که نیستید؟

You're not a local?

چه جوری براتون بگم؟ واقعاً دردناکه.

How can I put it? It's painful.

مادرم طفلک این کارو می کرد.

My poor mother did it.

از دستمون کاری بر نمی یاد.

We can't do anything.

بالاخره لومون داد!

The cat's out of the bag!

گوشی روقطع نکنین.

Hold the line.

Procedure 7: Adaptation

With this seventh method we reach the extreme limit of translation: it is used in those cases where the type of situation being referred to by the SL message is unknown in the TL culture. In such cases translators have to create a new situation that can be considered as being equivalent. Adaptation can, therefore, be described as a special kind of equivalence, a situational equivalence. Adaptations are particularly frequent in the translation of book and film titles. And also the method of adaptation is well known amongst simultaneous interpreters.

The refusal to make an adaptation is invariably detected within a translation because it affects not only the syntactic structure, but also the development of ideas and how they are represented within the paragraph. Even though translators may produce a perfectly correct text without adaptation, the absence of adaptation may still be noticeable by an indefinable tone, something that does not sound quite right. This is unfortunately the impression given only too often by texts published by international organizations, whose members, either through ignorance or because of a mistaken insistence on literalness, demand translations which are largely based on calques. The result may then turn out to be pure gibberish which has no name in any language.


مادرم همچین شیون وزاری می کرد.

My mother mourned a great deal.

خدا ببخشه بهتون.

May God preserve them.

سرت درد نکنه (در جواب دست شما درد نکنه).

You're welcome.

دکتر جوابش کرده .

…that there's no hope.

خسته نباشید.

Good luck.

دور از جان مادر شما.

Except your mother.

روم نمی شه.

I dare not.



Translations cannot be produced simply by creating structural or metalinguistic calques. There is an extremely serious problem, that of intellectual, cultural, and linguistic changes, which over time can be effected by important documents, school textbooks, journals, film dialogues, etc., written by translators who are either unable to or who dare not venture into the world of oblique translation.

It is obvious that several of these methods can be used within the same sentence, and that some translations come under a whole complex of methods so that it is difficult to distinguish them.


The English subtitled version of "The Wind Will Carry Us" is different to the original version in word or expression usage, specifically in colloquial terms. The cause of untranslatability or choosing special translation procedures in translating colloquial items is mostly cultural aspects. And these cultural aspects can become obstacles in subtitling translation. According to the researcher's analysis, the remedies toward this cause are basically the same. The fundamental strategy is to let the audience fully comprehend the content and then further appreciate this film. So, we can see that the translator often eliminates the alien and untranslatable/colloquial parts which would cause obstacles of comprehension in the film by adapting scripts and rewriting the lines.

Briefly speaking, the strategy is to localize the film thoroughly, (using adaptation procedure most of the time), to let the audience not feel confused and lost when encountering unfamiliar colloquialism and be able to fully enjoy the film. However, the translator does not try to meet perfect consistency in identity to reach equivalence when adapting the dialogues.

Due to the uniqueness of the source language and culture, sometimes there is no "equivalence" in the target language and culture for the translator to adapt to. In this case, the translator might decide to omit the colloquialism and re-create the lines. To what degree the re-creation should be done is not fixed though. It is often to see re-creations which still keep the essential idea of the source text and re-creations that are completely different to the source text in content. What compensation should be done after omitting the colloquialism depends on the translator's experience and purpose. Based on the same reason, there is no fixed rule for applying certain translating method on certain situation. The translator's purpose and expectation decide which method to apply.


Gambier, Y. (Ed.). (2003). Screen Translation. Finland: St. Jerome.

Koike, S. (1989). A Sociolinguistic and Communicative Analysis of the Translation Processes in Making Subtitles for the Movies: A Case Study of a Japanese Movie "IKIRU (to live)" With English Subtitles. MA thesis, University of Hawaii.

Luo, W. (2007). Translating the Untranslatable in Taiwan's Dubbing Translation: An Analysis of Translation Studies. MA thesis, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology.

O'Hagan, M. (2003). Middle Earth poses challenges to Japanese subtitling. Retrieved March 18, 2003, from https://www.translationdirectory.com/

Venuti, L. (2000). The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Colloquialism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colloquialism

Published - October 2008

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